Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Adventures in the highlands: Eronga, Patzcuaro and Urupan

I had the opportunity to spend several weeks in the highlands of Michocan state. Much of it was near lake Patzcuaro and its surrounding environs. There is something very amazing about this area of Mexico. It’s got a mixture of desert and alpine mountain terrain that blends together to make a very breath taking landscape. Every time I had a chance to see the landscape unfold into the distance with dry, yellow grass set against the receding layers of hazy blue mountains it left me stunned. It reminds me a little of eastern Washington or Oregon except, of course, for the ubiquitous cacti and other tropical flora that dot the land. In all honesty, my words will do little justice to the beauty of the land so I will speak more about the places we saw while we traveled around.

First, though, I want to mention the fun way that Danny and I have begun to travel around here. At home, hitchhiking is not only looked down upon as unsafe it is also illegal in most of the state. This is not the case in Mexico. In fact, most people get around by simply sticking their thumb out when a passing pickup rolls by. We got our first experience with it while we were going to and from the Bosque. We would catch rides up or down the long hill from Eronga to Yotatiro or vice versa. One of the best times was in the morning after we’d gone down to the market. As we were heading out of Yotatiro Danny happened to smile and nod to the guy driving the gas truck. It was this guys job to drive up and down the length of the hills to sell large canisters of cooking fuel to all of the households. When he was in a town he would turn on a very loud speaker that exclaimed, “EL GAAAAS!” It would then play the song we all know from the baseball field, the one I simply know as “Charge!” You know it, dun da dun da dun da dun da da! Well, we heard him passing by as we walked up from Eronga and he recognized us. He let us climb in the back amongst the fuel canisters and we raced up the hill laughing and yelling along with the speakers as we flew by bewildered townsfolk.

We have been greeted fairly often by bewildered looks as we traveled around up in the highlands. There are very, very few white travelers in this area and some of the smaller towns we’ve visited haven’t seen a white person in over a decade. Once, as we rode by in the back of our friends work truck, a tortilla selling lady was so perplexed to see us that she stopped catching the fresh tortillas coming out of the machine. She just sat there staring at us as more and more tortillas piled up in front of the machine. We couldn’t help but laugh since we were the reason for her dilemma. While people may be surprised they are no less nice to us. Everyone is still so helpful to us, always willing to offer whatever they can even if they can’t communicate with us.

There are many surprising gems hidden throughout the highlands. One day we went on a little sight seeing field trip to Urupan, north and west of Patzcuaro. We drove through miles and miles of dry, yellow landscape on our way out there only to be surprised by the most lush and tropical of environments when we reached our destination. Before we went to the town we traveled to a huge waterfall some miles away. This waterfall seemed to sneak out of the surrounding desert as it tumbled down out of the dry hillside above. Once we got down into the canyon the air became thick and humid which reminded Danny and me of our time in southeast Asia. The water poured out of the wall of rocks all around, filling the air with warm and pleasant mist. While this was beautiful it also seemed perdictable. If you have a tropical watefall you have a tropical enviroment. What was unexpected was the tropical gem we found in the town of Urupan.

We spent a good portion of the day traveling around the hot, colonial streets of the city looking for interesting history and delicious food. Once we had found plenty of both we decided we needed to find a place to rest. We decided to walk to a park that sat on the edge of town because our friend had heard of it before and had wanted to see it. I was thinking it would be a space with some trees and grass with maybe a few food vendors lounging around. Instead, we found ourselves in a Mayanesque water garden. Water flowed down channels around every walkway and enormous palm leaves, twice my height, loomed over us as we walked through the park. Everywhere we could hear the sounds of tropical birds and the gentle splashing and tinkling of water. The temperature was suddenly cool and pleasant, the air was filled with the thick smell of wet tropical plants. What a wonderful respite it was to the baking streets of the city just beyond the fence of the park.

The sights and surprises of the beautiful colonial towns of Eronga, Patzcuaro and Urupan were wonderful. Each town had such an amazing mixture of colonial and modern sights. Patzcuaro was quite a trip. As we walked down cobbled stone streets we were surprised to see electronics shops selling their wares from within adobe walls coated in simple lime based paints. We saw men dressed in ultra modern business suits taking an afternoon coffee amongst wooden and stone pillars outside of what might have once been a colonial governors villa. Ice cream shops sat next to ladies selling traditional sweets and candies from the time of the first conquistadors. The pace of life in these towns is also dichotomous. We saw enormous construction equipment tearing away at the hillside in town, cars and motorcycles racing around the ancient city center and well dressed people talking into the headset of their iphones. Yet we also saw families slowly walking in that same city center, buying treats and strolling past lush green plants. Many people were simply sitting and enjoying a pleasant afternoon while discussing what they wanted for dinner that night. The highlands is home to such a mixture of culture and climate. You can find everything from desert to tropical paradise in a few miles or a few meters. The people are also a mixture, a blend of old world attitudes mixed with modern gusto. It felt like a truly and uniquely Mexican place and I loved my time there. I hope to return again to see this landscape and the people more.

Next up, the icing on the highland cake, Morelia!

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